Daniel Smail: Challenges the idea that history began when civilization appeared





DANIEL SMAIL is a relatively new history professor at Harvard University. So it is appropriate that his On Deep History and the Brain was inspired by a bothersome question for historians: when exactly does history begin?

For scholars embedded in what he calls "western civ", the answer was simple for nearly 2000 years: begin with Creation, dated by Bishop James Usher at 4004 BC, or with the Flood. Then modern naturalists such as the Comte de Buffon, Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin extended our perspective backwards from thousands to millions of years. Yet historians persist in asking when the curtain went up. Mesopotamia? Greece? Rome? For them "prehistoric" implies a demarcation line beyond which they fear to tread.

Smail will have none of it. If the Sumerians are in his remit, so are the Palaeolithic. He attacks the myth that before agriculture humans led lives as solitary as orang-utans.



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